The purist dance critic Arlene Croce called Pina Bausch a pornographer of pain, a peddler of pathos, a mere dramatist. I never saw Bausch's dances in person, and after watching the new Oscar-nominated movie Pina, I only see certain sides of Bausch—the sides that flash at me, that make me gasp, that are served royally by Wim Wenders's direction and 3-D shooting. (I am spared, for instance, the many hours of duration in which these excerpts were embedded in full-length performances.) But while Pina is not Pina, Pina is dead.
She died suddenly in 2009, only five days after a cancer diagnosis, and given the difficulty of preserving choreography, Pina may become the most lasting widely accessible archive of this giant beating heart of an artist. She's just the opposite of the cool customer Merce Cunningham, who also died last year. Artist Tacita Dean managed to shoot a final documentary film of Cunningham overseeing a production's rehearsal, called Craneway Event. Deterred by Bausch's death, Wenders originally called off his plans to make Pina. (The two had been friends for 20 years.) But her dancers convinced him to go ahead—to our massive benefit (they testify to their rich relationship with her throughout the film). Craneway Event is a beautiful (if dragging) meditation on cerebral subjects; Pina is a direct hit, a drag from the Pina pipe.
The movie is close, warm, sometimes hot. In our row during the press preview, we gasped in visceral unison as the dancers in Bausch's raw version of Rite of Spring beat themselves about the midsection. They writhed across a stage covered in dirt, which, thanks to the 3-D, seemed to huff dust onto our laps. As the primeval story of the dance goes, a woman must be selected for sacrifice by the man standing in the center of the stage. Wenders positions the camera as if it were the man, each abject woman from a nearby huddle approaching and slinking away until the victim is identified and grabbed by both arms.
Not all of Wenders's decisions imply an embodied camera, and not all of the performances feel quite so for-the-camera as that one. The director's approach varies wildly, liberatingly. Some action takes place on a lawn or in a giant architectural box with windows, with dancers slipping or falling or sprinting out of view. In another sequence, a dancer in pointe shoes stuffed with hunks of veal at the toes (yes) is framed tightly between two rows of enormous copper pipes at an outdoor factory. Other dancers perform in the seats of a tram car hovering over Wuppertal, the northwest German city where Bausch's company is located, or in the grassy medians down on the city's streets. (Not every dance is heightened by the 3-D, though I hope the Oscar judges do watch the movie in its fullest 3-D form. Wenders used the now-popular RealD projection system, in which the viewer sees images at slightly separate times for each eye; that's what creates the dimensionality. 3-D has always been about getting two different visions to the two eyes: The older version is anaglyphic, which delivers the images to each eye in slightly different colors.)
Something about the in-your-faceness of 3-D—including its funny history as a delivery system for schlock shocks—makes a satisfying match for Bausch's deep impropriety and disregard for expected boundaries. She called what she did "tanztheater," and that "dance-theater" hybridity is what critics like Croce despised. Bausch's dancers spoke onstage like actors, and interacted with props and invasive scenery, splashing in human-made river-puddles onstage or kicking up carpets of flowers. Her pieces were chaotic and lousy with dancers. In one (Kontakthof, which translates to "meeting place"), there's a row of women against a wall, facing an approaching line of men who loosely mime fondling actions with their arms. The women appear to be experiencing an epidemic of jerky sexual panic; it's funny and messy, like the apocalyptic loss of control Bible-beaters are always predicting if the flesh becomes too free.
No small part of the pleasure of Pina is seeing Bausch herself dance, in segments from her 1978 piece Café Müller. It takes place in a cafe setting, full of tables and chairs; Bausch based it on having grown up in a restaurant and hotel run by her parents. Some of the dancers have their eyes closed. As they perform, other dancers rush around moving the furniture out of their way. (If this sounds familiar, portions of the piece were featured in Pedro Almodóvar's Talk to Her.) At one point, an increasingly desperate love sequence begins: A man enters from a doorway and rearranges the positions of a man and a woman who are hugging so that the man is instead holding the woman horizontally aloft; then he drops her to the floor. She jumps up and reembraces him with greater grip, and the sequence begins again, the third man entering from the doorway to interfere. It speeds up to the point of insanity.
There's an essential muchness to Bausch, captured in everything she did. When she spoke about dancing, she would say things like "Everything must come from the heart, must be lived" and "I am not interested in how people move, but in what moves them," which sound unspecific and just kind of goofy. But just watch her body move—it's enough to make you cry, or move your own body in response.